"The Impact of September 11 on Security in Asia"
Keynote Address by Gareth Evans to Monash Asia Institute Security Roundtable, Prato, Italy
For as long as any of us can remember, and certainly long predating 11 September 2001, Asia has been a laboratory for the analysis of just about every class of security problem with which policy makers have to wrestle: major power tension, nuclear weapon proliferation, sub-regional and bilateral disputation, internal conflict and state failure.
In the case of major power tension, North East Asia feels the tectonic plates grinding more than anywhere else on earth as the US becomes ever more assertive, China continues to grow stronger both absolutely and relatively, Japan ‘s economic strength falls away and remains unmatched by any comparable economic clout, and Russia remains stagnant.
In the case of nuclear proliferation, the cat is already out of the bag in India and Pakistan, but - whether realistic or not – worries persist about North Korea, and are starting to be expressed about Japan as its anxiety grows about its relative decline and about China’s capacity to build missiles faster than America’s capacity to deploy its faith-based missile defense system.
In the case of sub-regional and bilateral disputation, there are four big world-class continuing problems with which everyone is familiar and about which, however quiet things seem from time to time, no-one can afford to be complacent: India-Pakistan, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. In addition there a number of unresolved territorial disputes involving, among others, China with Japan and India. There are also a number of transnational issues – with various countries accusing each other of perpetrating or abetting environmental pollution, drug trafficking, smuggling, piracy, terrorism or the spread of HIV/AIDS – all of which are capable of exploding into life at more or less any time.
In the case of internal conflict, significant problems persist in Indonesia (notably the separatist struggle in Aceh and a number of communal conflicts), in the Philippines, in Nepal and in various parts of India, remain close to the surface in various parts of Central Asia and in Myanmar; and have not yet been finally resolved in Sri Lanka.
As for failed states, Afghanistan under the Taliban was a model of the kind, while North Korea is – despite its apparent military strength – almost totally unable to provide for its own people. And a number of other states – not excluding the regional giants – certainly remain deeply troubled with problems of governance.
The question for consideration here is how much difference has been made on any of these fronts by the 911 terrorist attacks on the United States. It’s an interesting question, because plenty of voices have been heard to claim that this was a life-changing event for the whole global security environment, not just Americans. Colin Powell, for example, describes 911 as marking the start of the “post-post-Cold War world”. My own view is that 911 has certainly made a difference, but maybe not the earth shattering difference that some of the more excited commentaries would suggest. In what follows I will explain why I take that view.
It must be acknowledged at the outset that there is absolutely no doubt that some things changed. The first is that there is abroad an alarming new sense of vulnerability. If this is the kind of damage that could be done to the world’s giant by a handful of people willing to commit suicide, employing creative imagination but zero primary technology, what would be the impact of a really full-scale attack going chemical, biological or even nuclear? In America the shock of losing both the physical and psychological protection of the two-ocean cocoon has been particularly acute, but I think the sheer scale of the damage that terrorism has shown itself capable of inflicting has had a sobering effect everywhere.
Secondly, we all understand much more about the interconnectedness of the world: for the first time for many people “globalisation” moved from abstraction to reality. September 11 made abundantly clear that no country can immunise or isolate itself entirely from external events: grievances bred elsewhere can have catastrophic consequences half a world away, and the ease of transport, international communications and personal movement in and out of countries have made it easier than ever before in history not only to plot evil but to deliver it. People in developing countries have long had the sense that their future was in the hands of those in other continents, but it’s come as a shock to the citizens of New York and London and Brussels that decisions directly and immediately affecting their own security can be made in the Hindu Kush. We may not have seen the end of unilateralism in US foreign policy, but we can wave goodbye to isolationism.
Thirdly, 911 has triggered a recognition that the West in general, and the US in particular, can no longer afford to treat with the same erratic neglect the problems of the Arab and Islamic world ignoring those problems except when oil supplies appear threatened. The 911 terrorists weren’t themselves poor or without influence, but they were supported by millions of people who are – those who resent perceived U.S. support for their own corrupt and insensitive regimes (and indifference hitherto to the democratic vacuum which has existed from Morocco to Pakistan); who resent perceived U.S. indifference to their own concerns for political and social justice (including for Palestinians); who want more economic opportunity and a bigger slice of the pie; and who resent those who seem so effortlessly to have so much of it already and to be so unwilling to share it. There is no consensus yet in the West as to how to address these issues, but there is at least now an acknowledgement that they are real.
The fourth impact of 911 is that it does seem to have made some old problems easier to solve. In Sri Lanka, perhaps as a result of the increased international focus on extremists and the greater attention to their sources of finance – as well as the advent of a new national government and some effective Norwegian mediation, the Tamil Tigers appear to have been having second thoughts about their sustainable future, and peace does seem closer at hand than for years. Another, non-Asian, case is Sudan, where the new obligation to demonstrate good international anti-terrorist behaviour has concentrated the government’s mind on the virtues of a settlement more than at any time in the two-decade history of this horrible conflict: with some focused leadership from the U.S. and others there is a big window of opportunity to now climb through.
It also has to be said that 911 has contributed directly to an improvement in relations between between several of the major powers, most notably between the U.S. and Russia and China respectively, but also – importantly – between the long antagonistic India and China, and between India and the U.S. Whatever the cynicism that might have contributed to the warming of hearts in Moscow and Beijing – with Chechnya and Xinjiang turned into even more open free fire zones - there is no doubt that relations between the U.S. and China, and even more so the U.S and Russia, are on a more stable and substantial basis since 911 than they have been for some time, and that is a very important ingredient in ensuring future global stability. It was the warming in the relationship with Russia - strongly consolidated by President Putin’s willingness to let the U.S. have a free hand with the former Soviet states of Central Asia, and his identification of terrorism as the greatest threat to international security – that more than anything else led Colin Powell to declare this the ‘post-post-Cold War’ era.
How serious, substantial and sustainable is the warming in the U.S.-China relationship remains to be seen. After the Bush Administration’s initially confrontational stand it was starting from a much lower base; the personal underpinnings are not as strong as with Russia, and new Chinese leaders are about to take office – whatever his other attributes, Jiang Zemin did seem to be in love with America; there continues to be uncertainty about China’s future internal stability, and Chinese nationalist sentiment (and popular willingness to be stridently critical of the US while at the same time enjoying and embracing much of its culture) is a wild card in that context; China has deliberately positioned itself, particularly with Iran, as diametrically opposed to the US’s “axis of evil” enterprise; the missile defence issue – and its potential to set alight a regional arms race – is a quiet but not dead issue; the new US presence in Central Asia is capable of generating new tensions as China stretches its own wings in this area with the Shanghai Six group; and, last but hardly least, missteps on either side could easily and dramatically inflame the Taiwan Strait situation
Finally, and conversely, 911 may have made a number of old problems harder to solve. This is so in at least two non-Asian areas of the world with which I am preoccupied in the International Crisis Group. The certain diversion of attention and the likely diversion of resources away from the job that remains to be done to in the Balkans is causing a good deal of anxiety: certainly the drawdown of remaining American troops from Bosnia and Kosovo would be a particularly unhappy and destabilising development. The diversion of diplomatic resources into the all encompassing war on terror is, again, of real concern across sub-Saharan Africa, where there are a legion of problems – from Liberia to the Congo and Zimbabwe and beyond – where strong American leadership (of the kind that was beginning to be foreshadowed by Secretary Powell before the 911 balloon went up) would be enormously helpful.
There are some Asian candidates for problems that may have become harder to solve in the post 911 environment. One of them is certainly North Korea, where the Bush Adminstration, having put at risk years of cautious progress by stepping back from the carefully crafted engagement strategy of Kim Dae Jung and the Clinton Administration, decided to lump North Korea in with Iraq and Iran as coaxial evildoers. The best explanation for what was, objectively, almost inexplicable was I think provided by a right-wing American columnist, who cheerfully put it this way:
Thank God for North Korea. Mentioning it is the equivalent of strip-searching an 80 year old Irish nun at airport security: it is our defence against ethnic profiling. Right now North Korea is too destitute and too isolated to be capable of anything but spasmodic violence. But it has the virtue of being non-Islamic.
There is clearly more international support for strong action against Iraq, than against North Korea or Iran, given that Saddam Hussein is not only reasonably suspected of rapidly acquiring new weapons of mass destruction, but also has an established track record of using them, and of outlaw behaviour generally. But there is no evidence for that translating into any support at all in the rest of the world for the emerging new doctrine in the U.S. that it is entitled to act pre-emptively, and if necessary unilaterally, to deal with states emerging as possessors of weapons of mass destruction, because of the temptations to which they might succumb to deliver such weapons to terrorists. If 911 results eventually in the accepted rules of international behaviour being turned inside out and upside down to this extent, its impact will indeed have been world changing.
Another set of problems that may become worse after 911 are those that may flow from the U.S. paying rather too high a price for the support it has received from some countries for its anti al-Qaeda and Taliban operations: too high in the sense of encouraging, or at least allowing, repressive leaders to go on being so repressive that they turn opposing moderates into extremists – and, with the door of the mosque often the last one left open, Islamist extremists at that.
It is unhappily the case that signing up for the fight against terrorism has allowed authoritarian leaders to cleanse themselves of past sins, with Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan lauded in Washington for his help and given new funds; with Askar Akaev of Kyrgyzstan feeling more free to jail opposition members and curb press; and with Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan also free of pressure on opening up politics and dealing with corruption. We have moreover seen in Pakistan Pervez Musharraf not just rehabilitated but lauded, with his undercutting of institutions and democracy in Pakistan not just being ignored but encouraged, ignoring the history of military rulers and their nurturing of extremism.
Further on this theme, and particularly galling, although probably not especially significant in regional security terms, is the spectre of Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir being welcomed in Washington for the first time since 1994 while using the spectre of ‘terrorism’ to undercut the remaining opposition to his rule from PAS and the supporters of his jailed former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.
All that said about the various impacts of 911, I think it’s probably the case that its main impact was to change perceptions rather than realities. The fundamentals of the global security environment - and I don’t think this is very different for the Asian region – remain pretty much as they were.
For a start, the distribution of global power remains incredibly lopsided, with the US just as much after 911 as it was before a military and economic hyperpower in comparison with everyone else – and a target as a result for a great deal of envy, resentment and outright hostility from a lot of the rest of the world. When 12 November dawned the contest for second place in the world was still taking place a long way back on the track. What can be said, though, is that the further dramatic increase in U.S. defence expenditure that has been largely prompted by 911 makes the disparities even starker: the increase of $48 billion requested by the President is itself larger than the total military budget of any other country in the world, and will bring U.S. military spending to 40 per cent of the global total, double its share of global GDP, and eight times its share of global population.
Post 911, despite all the talk of a new era of multilateral cooperation, intergovernmental institutions like the United Nations continue to limp along with no more and no less power to change the world than their member states will allow, with the member states being overwhelmingly driven, in turn, by the same old perceptions of national interest and the same old power relativities.
A second thing that 911 hasn’t changed, despite all the anxious talk about the impact of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists, is the actual distribution of nuclear weapons power: still in the hands of a very few, but with the ever present risk – now more real than it has been for years, with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties both faltering – of the few becoming many. The recent entry of India and Pakistan to the nuclear weapons state club – joining the five original declared nuclear powers and Israel – should remind us once again of the simple but powerful conclusions of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons a few years ago: that so long as any state retains nuclear weapons, others will want them; that so long as any state has them, they are bound one day to be used, if not by design then by accident; and that any such use will be catastrophic for humankind.
There is nowhere in the world that the risk of nuclear confrontation is higher or more immediate than in the sub-continent, where the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan is unquestionably the world’s most fragile and dangerous. The stakes are high; emotions are high; and the risk of miscalculation is very high. This week’s revelation that Pakistan was readying its nuclear arsenal in the context of the 1999 border clash with India only reinforces the point; as did the account a few months ago by a retired US airforce officer of 20 wargames on Kashmir he had played out in staff colleges over the previous decade, in nearly every one of which simulations “rational” decisions had been made by one side or the other to launch a nuclear attack, with millions dead the invariable outcome.
The compelling force of the Canberra Commission conclusions continue, unfortunately, to leave the relevant policy makers unmoved, for reasons that are never very compellingly explained. Why, in the post Cold War World, it is necessary to ultimately retain, after a series of progressive reductions, any nuclear weapons at all for balance of terror reasons is not at all clear. Why you need nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to deter rogue states producing or using them, when current generation conventional weapons give you all the deterrent or retaliatory muscle you could ever need, is never explained. And the notion that you need a nuclear or CBW armoury to deal with terrorist groups or individuals producing home-made weapons of this kind is simply ludicrous.
A third point to make is that just about all of the specific security problems with which the world will have to deal in the years ahead are exactly the same kinds of security problems it has to deal with in the past. Some involve conflicts or potential conflicts or unresolved grievances between states: the “big four” Asian problems – India-Pakistan, Taiwan Strait, Korean Peninsula and South China Sea – are all essentially of this kind, in practice if not technically. Rather more conflicts, elsewhere in the world if not so much in Asia, will involve fights within states, the product of greed or grievance or state failure or all of the above. Each has its own dynamic and each requires to be tackled on its own terms. Some cross border conflicts will require full scale international action of the kind clearly mandated by the U.N. Charter and set in train against Iraq a decade ago; some internal crises will involve such catastrophic human suffering, and such government incapacity or abdication of responsibility, as to cry out for international military intervention. All of them will require more intelligent and committed preventive action than the international community has so far been able or willing to provide.
With all the understandable post-911 preoccupation with terrorism, it is worth reminding ourselves how little the fundamentals of conflict have actually changed. The great dangers come from political problems – some of them with underlying economic and social causes – that are unresolved, unaddressed, incompetently addressed or deliberately left to fester, until they become so acute they explode. Part of the fall-out of such explosions can be terrorism, including international terrorism, but terrorism is not in and of itself a self-driving concept, or in and of itself an “enemy”. It is not even an ideology, as anarchism was in the 19th century. Rather it is a tool or a tactic, resorted to almost invariably by the weak against the strong – weak individuals, weak groups, weak states.
Since power relativities have changed to the point where virtually everybody is weak in comparison to the U.S., and since 911 has shown the way, there is more risk today that those in serious dispute with Washington will use terror as a tactic to compensate for that weakness. But the core problems go back to political issues. Military force is part of the answer, and was wholly legitimately used in Afghanistan for punitive, retaliatory and in effect self-defence purposes, but – whether in the hands of the U.S., Israel or anyone else – it can never be an effective substitute for the traditional hard work of dealing politically with those core problems.
Part of the problem of characterising the global security task ahead in President Bush’s favoured language of a “war on terrorism” or a “war on evil” is that it conceals the complexity of the issues, and the necessity to accompany grand principles with detailed case-by-case strategies and tactics for dealing with each situation on its own merits. As a number of commentators have remarked, a war against evil is, almost by definition, unlimited and interminable. The concept doesn’t help us much in identifying points of entry, and there is certainly no obvious exit strategy.
Nor does it help to overdramatise the terrorist connection where it barely exists. There may well be individuals or cells with al-Qaeda connections in Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere in South East Asia - as there clearly have been in the U.S. and Europe – but ICG’s work in Indonesia has not suggested any significant following for extremists of any kind, and the same appears to be true elsewhere. The best way of ensuring the continued absolute dominance of the moderate brand of Islam that has overwhelmingly predominated in this part of Asia – and which has the largest concentrations of Muslims in the world – is for the governments of the region to govern competently and justly. It is on that, rather than seeking to restore military assistance to unreformed militaries, that the U.S. and supporting governments should be concentrating.
In terms of Isaiah Berlin’s famous dichotomy, there’s a place for hedgehogs – those consumed by one big idea – when it comes to global security issues, but most of the time the most productive work is done by foxes – those who know many things, and who understand the need for endlessly varied approaches to solve endlessly variable problems. There are big risks in ignoring those problems which are not easily subsumed under the mantle of a war against terror. And perhaps there are even bigger risks in wrapping in that mantle security problems – like those in Iraq, Iran and North Korea – which are at best only marginally connected to it.
If the character of most of the world’s direct security problems hasn’t much changed since 911, the economic, social and equity problem fundamentals which often lie behind such security problems have not changed either. Secretary General Kofi Annan made the point succinctly in his end of year press conference last December:
For many people in the world 2001 was not different from 2000 or 1999. It was just another year of living with HIV/AIDS, or in a refugee camp, or under repressive rule, or with crushing poverty.
The developed world is slowly beginning to show signs of having understood how comprehensively it has abdicated its responsibility, in terms of development assistance, to redress the fearful deprivation - starting with basic health, housing and education – that exists in so much of the developing world. But the recent Monterrey Conference on Finance for Development hardly changed anything in terms of serious commitments made. And even with the very welcome announcement by the Bush Administration of a very significant increase in the US aid commitment, it won’t do much to lift the U.S. out of the cellar division internationally: the 1 cent in every $10 of GDP going to Official Development Assistance will become just 1 ½ cents, still a long way from the 7 cents set years ago as the appropriate international standard. I don’t want to sound obsessive about the U.S. when so many other countries, including my own, are falling dramatically short of their responsibilities, but great power carries with it greater not lesser leadership obligations.
One further thing worth mentioning as not having changed, on top of all these other underlying factors – and I will conclude on this note - is the endless capacity of individual leaders to create havoc, miss opportunities and generally undermine the best-laid assessments, and the best of all international relations theories, of how the world works and how peace can be assured. In all my years of international public life, I have never ceased to be amazed at the capacity of individuals to make a difference, for better or for worse So much seems to depend just on the luck of the draw: whether at a time of fragility and transition you get a Mandela or a Milosevic, a Sharon or a Rabin, an Arafat or an Ataturk, a Suu Kyi or a Suharto, a Mugabe or a Deng Xiao Peng. That has always been so, it’s the hardest thing of all for anyone – particularly from outside – to influence, and I suspect it will always remain so.